Note added in December 2019: I wrote the following article years ago and I see now how terribly judgemental I was about toilets in China. I’ve added some tips and comments to update it a bit.
My message now is: be aware of how you communicate and behave around the issue of Chinese toilets. We are judging them from the point of view of our own cultures. While it’s okay to feel negative about toilets and other customs in China, be careful that this does not become a condemnation of China as a whole or its culture. It’s a fascinating and wonderful place and I’d go back in a flash if I could!
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I’m puzzled by Chinese attitudes toward cleanliness. The cities we’ve seen so far: Beijing, Chengde, Datong, Pingyao and where we are now, Hancheng, are dirty, loud, crowded places. People spit loudly and copiously on the street. There’s litter. Everyone smokes, everywhere. Look at the short film I’ve added here and you’ll see what I mean: it’s the view from our 11th floor hotel room here in Hancheng. If you’re wondering if it’s overcast or if that’s pollution, I don’t know; I can’t tell.
Toilets in China
The worst part for us is the Chinese toilets: they are smelly and filthy and disgusting. On the one hand, they’re squat toilets, which is good as far as I’m concerned, because that allows me to avoid touching them, but I don’t understand why people accept that level of filth, especially the smell. There’s only rarely any toilet paper, and, apparently because the plumbing can’t take it, the toilet paper (that people bring themselves) doesn’t get flushed but gets put in a wastepaper basket next to the toilet—hence the smell. There’s more detail I could give, but I think you get the idea.
Note added in December 2019: I’ve learned since my trip in China that in many cultures people prefer to clean themselves with water and then only use toilet paper, if at all, to dry themselves. Since the plumbing and/or sewer systems can’t handle all that paper, they put it in a trash container instead, and it’s not smelly because it’s only been used to dry clean skin. This is not what I witnessed in China. In most places there was no water in the stall to clean myself with, and frankly, the whole facility smelled terrible.
Here are some tips for using a squat toilet in China or elsewhere, in case this is something you’re not used to:
- Bring toilet paper. Hand your bag or whatever you’re carrying to a friend, or hang it on a hook inside the stall, if there is one.
- There are usually spots on either side of the hole meant for your feet.
- Turn around and face the door before you squat.
- If you’re wearing pants or shorts, pull them all the way down past your knees. If you’re wearing a skirt or dress, do the same with your tights/pantyhose and underwear and lift up your skirt. Don’t forget to lift the back of your skirt as well.
- As you pull your pants down and squat, keep your hands on your back pockets so nothing falls out. Better yet, empty your back pockets before you start.
- Squat as far down as possible. This will help hold your scrunched-up pants out of the way and make it unlikely for anything to hit them.
- Once you’re done, stay squatting until you wipe yourself. If there is a hand shower in the stall, now is the time to use it, then use the toilet paper to dry yourself.
- Dispose of the toilet paper, either by throwing it in the hole or in a trash bin, depending what the norm is where you are.
- Only then, stand up again and pull up your pants, again keeping your hands on your back pockets as you pull up.
Clearly, too, the vast majority of people here live in relative squalor: mostly run-down huge apartment blocks. There are many public toilets along the streets, and they stink (I haven’t been in them, but they stink just walking by.). I suspect that many people don’t have toilets of their own, perhaps because apartments and more traditional houses have been subdivided so much, so these public toilets get a lot of use.
In the smaller towns too, even without massive apartment buildings, people seem to live in very poor conditions. Yesterday, in Pingyao (which is a popular tourist destination because the original walled city of traditional courtyard houses is completely intact), we were walking a side street, away from the main tourist area, and saw a ‘night soil‘ man. They used to have these in European and American cities as well, until sewer systems and indoor plumbing were improved.
This night-soil man had a donkey-pulled cart with a big tank mounted on it, and he was pouring a bucket of ‘night soil’ into the tank. That means there are people living in these traditional courtyard houses who still don’t have plumbing for toilets.
Here are some more tips for using toilets in China:
- We found that toilets got somewhat better when they were behind a pay wall. In other words, if you are going to pay admission to something, wait until after you do so. The toilet inside the attraction or museum or historical site or whatever is likely to get a bit less use, so it’ll be somewhat less smelly. Some sites have multiple pay walls, i.e. you pay admission to the site and have to pay more to enter something more specific further in. The toilet behind two paywalls will be somewhat better.
- Our foster daughter had brought some of those tiny perfume samplers with her. We used them before entering the toilets, dabbing a bit under our noses before going in. It helped a bit.
- When we had a centrally-located hotel, we planned our day around circling back after a few hours to use the hotel toilet.
Hotels and trains: cleanliness and Chinese toilets
At the same time, some places can be exceedingly clean too. The hotels we’ve stayed in are spotless, and labour must be cheap because there are people busy dusting furniture, cleaning floors and so on all day. The toilets in our hotel rooms (mostly officially three-star, but often four-star quality) are Western-style sit toilets and very clean: usually better than in Europe.
Shops and restaurants are often bare-bones, but always clean. The train compartments and the bedding on the sleepers are absolutely threadbare, but clean, and the windows of the train are cleaner than the average in Holland. (Yet the train toilets are just as bad as the public ones, even on bullet trains.)
Several times I’ve seen people pull out tissues and carefully clean around the sides of their shoes. In the waiting room at the train station, where I saw people spit and litter even inside, I watched a woman very carefully peruse the available seats critically before deciding which to sit in. People dust off their scooters before sitting down.
People here are always neatly dressed, even if they are poor. Their clothes are clean and their hair is clean. How they manage that, I don’t know. And people here don’t smell of body odor, even in this midsummer heat. I don’t think I’ve visited any other city in the summer where people don’t smell!
So where is the boundary? When is cleanliness important and when is filth acceptable?